Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Phoenix as field set for final battle in South Florida

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By Jerry Jordan — AVONDALE, Ariz. – Only when NASCAR comes to town could a town that averages 3,832 hours of sunlight each year experience heavy downpours that cut short the next to the last race of the Sprint Cup season and impact which drivers advanced to the final round of the Chase for the Championship next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But that is exactly what happened, on Sunday, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled his way to the front of the pack in the rain-shortened Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 as the skies opened up, once again, in the middle of the desert. It had already been a long day with rains delaying the start of the race by more than six hours.

“We had an idea that the rain was in the area, but all the circumstances that played out at the end of the race are just kind of luck I think,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I want to give Greg (Ives, crew chief) a lot of credit and the guys. They gave us a good enough car to come here and qualify well. I think the reason why we won this race is because of the way we qualified to give ourselves a position to be up front all night. When something like this quirky happens we were able to capitalize.

“It’s a rain-shortened win, but my guys are very proud of it because of how the car ran all weekend and we put ourselves in this position. A lot of guys would love to see this race continue and have an opportunity to race to the Chase.”

The win is great for Earnhardt Jr. but since he was eliminated from #TheChase after Talladega, he won’t be competing for the championship and this win is just for stats and bragging rights. The drivers most impacted by the rainout were Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

Busch was on the outside pole when the green flag fell at the start of the race but NASCAR penalized him, saying he jumped the start. He was eventually black-flagged and sent to pit road for a pass-through penalty, which forced him to fight his way through the field for the rest of the night. He was able to battle back to seventh but it wasn’t enough to advance and compete for the championship next week.

“That is a reason to start a survey and right now, I encourage to go onto Twitter, my Facebook and my Instagram and follow it and we are all going to have a survey,” Busch said, regarding NASCAR’s penalty. “I don’t even think it was a penalty, we are just going to have a survey about it. We are going to ask the fans. It is not even a call in my mind.”

Despite his frustration, Busch was upbeat when asked about his season, as a whole. He rebounded to win two races and sit on three poles after being suspended for the first three races of the season after his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, made a bogus claim that he had physically abused her and tried to choke her inside his motor coach at Dover International Speedway.

“We did everything possible to put polish on a season like that and get out there with elbow grease and work hard at it,” Busch said. “ When there is some tarnish that is sitting there, polish and polish and that is all I kept doing this whole year.”

While Logano needed a win to advance, his teammate could have made it to the final round had a couple of the other Chase drivers had trouble. He said after the race that he gave it all and he wasn’t surprised when the rains fell again.

“It was a long day for everybody and to have it end like that wasn’t surprising,” Keselowski said. “We kept adjusting on it, but it’s a short race and who knows? Maybe that last run we would have had something, but that’s not the way it played out. The highest we can get is fifth in points now, so I’d like to pull that off and take advantage of that opportunity when we get to Homestead next week.”

Edwards missed #TheChase by five points.

Advancing to the Championship Round of #TheChase next week were Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and defending Sprint Cup Series Champion Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon had already secured his spot in the final race of the season with an epic win at Martinsville Speedway.

“What can I say about the whole team and everybody at Furniture Row Racing and everybody back at the shop in Denver,” said Truex Jr. “It’s just a dream come true for us. I’m just really proud of what we’ve accomplished this year and to be able to be putting really good weeks together was really awesome.”

“I got a little nervous there when the caution came out on us tonight, but all in all we did what we had to do and Homestead is a really good race track for me and that’s our kind of race track for this team. So, I’m excited about next week and the opportunity to do something special. This is the kind of thing that you dream about since you were a little kid. Having a shot to win a Sprint Cup Series championship is just awesome and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

Another driver, who was obviously ecstatic at the outcome of his season, so far, was Kyle Busch, who had to overcome near insurmountable hurdles to even race, much less battle for a championship. Before the season really even began for Busch, he found himself laying on his back in a hospital bed after a massive crash at Daytona International Speedway. He broke his right leg and his left foot in a horrific crash during the season-opener Xfinity Series race and missed 11 races. Upon his return, he won four races and battled into the Top 30 in points to earn eligibility for the #TheChase.

“This is what the format is and you have to go race against three other guys,” Kyle Busch said. “The three guys that I’m racing with, it’s so cool the storylines that you’re going with there. You’ve got the past champion from last year racing against Kevin Harvick and probably the most dominant car each and every week, the most consistent car.”

“You have Jeff Gordon who has his own story of his own that he wants to put a chapter to end with for his fifth championship and of course the dark horse, Martin Truex Jr. being a single car team and being as stout as they are with Furniture Row, it’s pretty cool to see. I’m looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to going out there and performing with those guys and racing them and being the lone Toyota, it’s going to be cool to see that Toyota Bug whip the other guys and take home this championship.”

Harvick was proud of his team’s ability to deal with adversity throughout #TheChase and looks forward to defending his title next week.

“Well, I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the Chase,” Harvick said. “We’ve survived and advanced. It hasn’t been 100% pretty from one end to the other, but I think as you look at the Chase, it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race. I’m just really proud of everybody and we’re going to go down there and just do like we’ve done and race as hard as we can.”

“Who would have thought you’d come to the desert and it’s going to rain? But, bring NASCAR, and you’ll catch-up on your rain.”

Since Gordon was already locked-in to #TheChase, he could take it easy but that’s not his MO. He finished the race in sixth position and when asked about who he had picked to be battling next week, he said the field was right there next to him.

“Those are the guys I picked,” Gordon said, as members of the NASCAR media began to laugh. “Well, just in my mind I thought we were going to be battling. Obviously, each week things changed. But, I’m excited about our chances and our opportunity.”

Our team is fired up and working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won Martinsville; and we know we’ve got some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I love that race track. I think we showed that last year. I can’t wait to get down there and get that car on track and start tuning it in for the race.”

The green flag falls at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday and only one of the final four drivers can leave South Florida as the champion. Whichever one it is, they all agree the 2015 Chase for the Championship has had its ups and downs and a whole bunch of drama.

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